Although Plattsburgh State boasts a 26-0-2 record and is many prognosticators’ favorite this season to win the program’s first Division III championship since 2008, Cardinals head coach Kevin Houle isn’t getting carried away.
It would have been easy to after PSU comfortably navigated its quarterfinal game last Saturday in a 5-2 win at home against St. Norbert at Plattsburgh, N.Y.’s Stafford Ice Arena.
The Cardinals are favored to advance again this Friday in their national semifinal game against Middlebury in Superior, Wis. which starts at 4:30 ET. However, Houle understands that as the stakes get higher, so does the pressure of keeping PSU’s undefeated season going.
PSU skated with Middlebury (19-7-2) twice before this season, winning 3-2 on the road in Middlebury, Vt. on Nov. 25 before coming away with a 3-1 victory in Plattsburgh on Jan. 30. However, those wins now mean little to Houle, who was quick to praise the Panthers for their accomplishments so far in the postseason.
Middlebury has beaten the odds so far this season, gaining an at-large bid to the Division III tournament before besting intrastate opponent Norwich 3-2 in overtime on the road last Saturday.
“Both teams will prepare how they will for playing this late in the season, but everybody [on our two teams] is familiar with one another,” Houle said. “Middlebury’s a great hockey team, and they’re here because they beat an excellent team in Norwich.
“We may have beaten Middlebury twice earlier this year, but we were fortunate when we played Middlebury at Middlebury to come out with a win.”
The teams’ first meeting of the season back in November was one that wasn’t decided until very late in the game. Plattsburgh put the Panthers into a 2-0 hole on their own Kenyon Arena ice early in the second period, but the Cardinals had to overcome goals from Middlebury sophomore forwards Emily Fluke and Hannah Bielawski before PSU’s Emma Rutherford’s strike with 8:10 remaining stood up as the game-winner.
Plattsburgh has since gone on to win the ECAC West regular season and playoff championships and has kept its undefeated record intact, but Houle is expecting a very even matchup when his Cardinals meet the Panthers on Friday for a third time this season.
“I don’t think there’s much of a difference between our two teams, and this on Friday will be a game that certainly either of us could win,” Houle said. “We’re excited to play and excited to play Middlebury because we always have great, competitive games with them, so this will be a great matchup.”
Middlebury head coach Bill Mandigo isn’t expecting to see anything new from the Cardinals in their national semifinal clash.
“I don’t imagine they’ll be any different to how they were earlier in the season,” Mandigo said. “They’re big, they move the puck well and they’re solid in all three areas of the game.
“They have one of the best goaltenders in the country, and they have defenders who can move the puck, their forwards are big and strong and can shoot the puck, and all their skaters know how to score.
Indeed, the Cardinals don’t appear to have any glaring weaknesses in their game this season. PSU has scored more goals per game (4.79) than any other Division III team, the Cardinals have given up the fewest (1.04), and senior goaltender Sydney Aveson has the nation’s best goals-against average (1.16) and eighth-best save percentage (.937).
The Cardinals are led at the other end of the ice by senior forward Teal Gove, whose 27 goals and 21 assists for 48 points so far this season have many considering her the favorite to win the Laura Hurd Award, given annually to the top women’s player in Division III ice hockey.
Sophomore forward Shannon Stewart (21-17-38) and junior forward Jenny Kistner (11-20-31) aren’t too far behind Gove at the top of the Cardinals’ scoring chart.
Middlebury’s attacking corps is led by a trio of sophomores. Bielawski (9-21-30), Fluke (16-12-28) and Katie Sullivan (13-12-25) pack a punch whether playing on the same line or if they’re split up.
|PLattsburgh STate vs. Middlebury|
|Assists per Game||6.13||5.71|
|Goals per Game||4.13||3.64|
“They sometimes play together and sometimes with different people, but all three of them have had pretty solid sophomore seasons, which I think is a testament to them and to their hard work both in the season and all year long,” Mandigo said.
“We had pretty high expectations for them when we recruited them, and we’re pretty glad with what we’ve gotten out of them.”
Perhaps the trio’s finest hour so far this season came last Saturday when a hat trick of goals from Sullivan last Saturday – including the game-winner 14:28 into the extra period – punched the Panthers’ tickets to Superior.
Although Mandigo acknowledged the contribution Sullivan gave to her team in that win and throughout this season, he was quick to mention that the win over Norwich was a full team effort.
“If people come to watch us play and see her skating up and down the ice, she’s usually the one people are talking about after the game,” Mandigo said. “She skates so well, she’s fast, she’s tenacious and she sticks her nose in and battles all over the ice.
“It’s good that she got those goals against Norwich and good for us, but, as I tell anyone who asks, there’s no one player on our team who does anything by herself.”
Whoever wins Friday’s semifinal will face either Gustavus Adolphus (27-0-1) or Elmira (22-5-1) in Saturday’s national championship game. What’s now past is past, and all four teams have to make sure they take care of the present in order to create what will be remembered in the future.
“I think anybody that’s going to a final four is going there to win,” Houle said. “We’re going there to win, Middlebury’s going there to win, and so is Gustavus, and so is Elmira.
“Any team that gets to this point knows it’s still in with a chance to win this thing. Some of us have been here more recently than others, but we’re all going in with the attitude that it’d be a disappointment to not win it.”